Of Curious Workmanship
by Edgar G. Snow, Jr.
Historically Funny Theories
[p.98] A couple of months ago while loitering in Barnes & Noble, I came across a book entitled How to Be Funny, by comedian Steve Allen, the inventor of the Tonight Show. I glanced around to see if anyone was looking and, embarrassed, pulled it off the shelf to take a peek. There were transcripts of old jokes, sketches, and interviews—too much punishment for me—but others were classic, usually more witty than humorous, along the lines of Groucho Marx quips. It even had homework assignments, like, “Write a joke for Rodney Dangerfield,” or “Using the Misinterpretation Approach, write a response to the statement: ‘I want a quick sandwich.’” Easy enough. Within seconds I came up with: “You want a quick sandwich? How about this turbo-charged Reuben with a 93 octane Perrier?” Hey, I thought, anyone can “do” Steve Allen, even though the Perrier bit would have been funnier [p.99] during the benzene scare of the late 1980s.
I decided to buy the book. I waited until no one stood at the purchase counter and meandered up to the clerk nonchalantly with the cover pressed to my chest and the spine toward the ground so no one could read the title. The truth is I would rather have been seen purchasing a book entitled Super Marital Sex (which I own, but I planned that purchase and wore a baseball hat and dark glasses) than How to Be Funny. Arguably the worst insult in English is: “You have no sense of humor.” And who wants to make a public confession?
When I got to the cash register, I laid the book upside down, hoping the clerk would just scan the thing and put it into a bag without looking at it. Of course, she would turn it over first before scanning it and I would be humiliated. Hmmm, what could I say to soften any sarcastic barbs from her? “It’s for my wife,” would be easy enough. Come to think of it, I think that’s what I said when I bought the Super Marital Sex book. But the clerk didn’t say anything. Then she took my credit card. Big mistake! I should have used cash. Now I’ll hear from some publisher for the humor-impaired and be harassed by niche telemarketers at home during dinner or, worse, book club offers at work.
The truth is, I didn’t even want my wife to see the book, so I put it behind the toilet, a place where she doesn’t read. My hopes ran high as I read the foreword [p.100] by Bill Maher of Politically Incorrect, but the rest of Allen’s book was less funny, funny being in the eye of the beholder, of course. I do recommend, however, the brief discussion of theories of funniness and some standard joke formulas. Surprisingly, Allen, quite the Renaissance Man (he makes a lame joke about this, saying he used to be a Middle Ages Man), quotes Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero on humor (but without acknowledgements—the test of true humorists must be that they can dispense with footnotes). Plato saw humor as the result of the misfortune of others and the momentary feeling of superiority, a gratified vanity that the misfortune didn’t happen to us. Aristotle pointed toward incongruities that pose neither danger nor pain, just frustrated expectations. Finally, Cicero noted that humor reveals a streak of meanness, a mild form of sadism. Allen prefers the idea that laughter is the brain’s way of showing surprise. I think he’s right about that.
In English, “humor” was originally a part of medical terminology. The four humors (a great rock-and-roll band name) were black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood (great names for band members). A good-humored person was one who had a balance of these four important elements. Humor, in essence, was and remains a description of mood. We use the term humor to describe situations and characters, focusing on in-[p.101]congruities. Wit is a way of seeing resemblances (and usually shocking incongruities). Wit is characterized by intense dialogue, and may not be humorous. Wit was also perceived as a duality: false wit, which merely dazzles, versus true wit, which enlightens. Humor tends to be exemplified in commonplace or vulgar situations, whereas wit is often more intellectual and focused. Humor has a soft touch; wit can bite.
Surely humor and wit are as old as humankind, although the cultural context for ancient texts is difficult to understand. Some examples are available to the modern reader. This early Mesopotamian text, for instance, could have served as an additional verse to the “Mr. Grinch” song sung on The Grinch Who Stole Christmas: [music stops—text spoken] “[You] dog spawn, wolf seed, mongoose stench … hyena whelp, carapaced fox, addlepated mountain monkey of [music starts and stops—text sung] reasoning non-sensical!” [music starts again—da dadada DA da, da dadada DA da]. (See The Anchor Bible Dictionary, “Humor and Wit.”)
The Bible itself appears to start off early with one of many puns. Eve is taken from Adam’s rib, and the Hebrew term for “rib” (“tsela “) appears to be a play on the word for “stumbling” (“tsela “), foreshadowing Eve’s role with the forbidden fruit as a Pandoraesque female type (see Graves and Patai, Hebrew Myths, p. 69). In [p.102] response, some non-scholar friends of mine have said, without any textual support, that the first joke in the Bible was the creation of man, and then God got serious when he created woman. The Bible also has other forms of humor and wit as well. While the Bible doesn’t say Jesus ever smiled or laughed (only in the Book of Mormon does Jesus smile—see 3 Nephi 19:25), it clearly presents him as a person who welcomes witty banter. One of my favorite repartees is his discussion with the Syro-Phoenician woman at the well in which Jesus appears to be charmed by her self-deprecating humorous comment that she not be excluded since even dogs are allowed to eat crumbs (Mark 7:24-30).
On a less sublime note, broader forms of humor are also present in the Bible, although often unrecognized by modern readers. I trust the Bible won’t be viewed as too out-house-landish if I end on this apparently humorous episode about Ehud and Eglon taken from Judges 3: 14-26 (with my commentary in brackets). Maybe even Rodney Dangerfield could use it.
So the children of Israel served Eglon the king of Moab eighteen years. But when the children of Israel cried unto the LORD, the LORD raised them up a deliverer, Ehud the son of Gera, a Benjamite, a man left-handed [Is this a joke? I thought left-handed people anciently were considered sinister, but maybe Israeites thought [p.103]left-handed people were funny]: and by him the children of Israel sent a present [Hint, hint] unto Eglon the king of Moab. But Ehud made him a dagger which had two edges, of a cubit length [as long as your forearm]; and he did gird it under his raiment upon his right thigh. And he brought the present [Wink, wink] unto Eglon king of Moab: and Eglon was a very fat man [Hmmm, not a politically correct joke, is it?]. And when he had made an end to offer the present [Okay, already!], he sent away the people that bare the present [We got it!]. But he himself turned again from the quarries that were by Gilgal, and said, I have a secret errand unto thee, O king … And Ehud put forth his left hand, and took the dagger from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly [Gross, but your twelve-year-old boys will love it]: And the haft also went in after the blade; and the fat closed upon the blade, so that he could not draw the dagger out of his belly [Really gross; you can almost hear Ehud say, “I hate it when that happens!”]; and the dirt came out [You don’t even have to consult a Hebrew dictionary to get the olfactory sense of this incident]. Then Ehud went forth through the porch, and shut the doors of the parlour upon him, and locked them. When he was gone out, his servants came; and when they saw that, behold, the doors of the parlour were locked, they said, Surely he covereth his feet [Biblical euphemism for “relieving oneself”] in his summer chamber. And they tarried till they were ashamed [They waited so long they were embarrassed for him? [p.104] Was he reading something?]: and, behold, he opened not the doors of the parlour; therefore they took a key, and opened them: and, behold, their lord was fallen down dead on the earth. [Ba-boom!]